Spycraft in TURN: Nathaniel Sackett’s Anachronistic Gadgets (Or: What year is this again?)

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Here’s a rhetorical question for you, fellow TURNcoats: Why make a show about Revolutionary War espionage when the spy technology you focus on most is from the 15th, 19th, and even 20th centuries?

You might reply: “Well… because it’s fun. And I can make a cool story out of it.” Great! That’s certainly a fair answer. But in that case — why would you try so hard to convince people that your story is fact-based and “authentic” to the 18th century when that argument is pretty much impossible to support?

I found myself asking these very questions while updating the TURN Historical Timeline to reflect the events portrayed in the last few episodes (thought admittedly not for the first time). We had to reconfigure the location of a few things on the Timeline this week in order to fit in more events at the tail end of it – two which occurred in the 19th century and one that even occurred in the early 20th century, well over 100 years after the end of the Revolutionary War! (You can check out the updated version by clicking on the image below, or visiting the Timeline page for additional information.)

TURN Historical Timeline version 2.1. Click to enlarge.
TURN Historical Timeline version 2.1. Click to enlarge.

“Nice gadgets you have there. But what happened to the 18th century?”

Historians might ask themselves “What year is this supposed to be again?” while watching TURN for a multitude of reasons (issues with clothing, uniforms, other material culture, language, false historical claims, premature character deaths, etc.) — but for this post, we’re focusing on intelligence history, which is what TURN is supposed to be about.  Heck, they even changed the official name of the show after Season 1 to clarify that the show is all about “Washington’s Spies”!  Thus far, however, TURN’s treatment of Revolutionary War espionage has been erratic at best.

When it comes to spycraft, Season 1 of TURN definitely started off in the right place, featuring period-correct techniques like Cardan grilles and even the original Culper Spy code — exciting, cunning, and historically-accurate stuff!  And TURN’s opening credits have been teasing us for over a year with a silhouette of the Turtle, the world’s first military submarine that actually debuted in 1776. (I’m saving a fuller discussion about the Turtle for later, in hopes that we’ll see it in the show soon.)

TURN opening credits montage final
TURN’s opening credits feature a number of espionage techniques. Some are accurate to the Revolutionary period; others are not. Clockwise from top left: Invisible ink on eggshells, the 19th century “polygraph” machine, a Cardan grille, and the Turtle submarine. View the full credit sequence here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLFP6yCHUoA

We’ve also seen the occasional use of invisible inks (or, as they were often called in the 18th century, “sympathetic stains”) – but even that element of Revolutionary spycraft has been given a strange and uneven treatment in TURN. Instead of focusing on the state-of-the-art chemical compound developed by James Jay for the use of Washington’s spies (which is a fascinating true story)  the show seems near-obsessed with the novelty of writing invisible messages through the shells of hard-boiled eggs – a centuries-old technique that the Culper Spy Ring never actually used.

In his book Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution, John Nagy sums up the origins and functionality of the “egg method” we’ve seen so often in TURN:

In the fifteenth century Italian invisible ink coverscientist Giovanni Porta described how to conceal a message in a hard-boiled egg. An ink is made with an ounce of alum and a pint of vinegar. This special penetrating ink is then used to write on the hard boiled egg shell. The solution penetrates the shell leaving no visible trace and is deposited on the surface of the hardened egg. When the shell is removed, the message can be read. (Invisible Ink, p. 7)

It’s a fascinating technique, and leads to quite a few dramatic (and highly amusing) moments in TURN. The only problem is that, according to the historical record, the Culper spies ever used the egg method — and neither did anyone else in the Revolutionary War, for that matter.  There is no record of the technique ever being used by either side.

But if Season 1’s use of Revolutionary War spycraft was fairly solid with a few aberrations, Season 2 is just the opposite — with anachronistic techniques far outnumbering the period-correct ones thus far.  Nathaniel Sackett’s “spy laboratory,” with its vials and beakers and fantastical super-weapons, is better suited to a steampunk movie than anything resembling the 18th century.  (So is the bearded, blunderbuss-carrying, leather-trenchcoat-wearing version of Caleb Brewster, but that’s a whole other post in itself.)

Now, in terms of making a storyline easy to follow, creating a centralized place as a sort of “spy headquarters” might make sense for a work of historical fiction, even if such a place never actually existed. However, nearly everything we’ve seen featured in Nathaniel Sackett’s anachronistic “spy lab” is from the 19th century – or even later. Besides the never-actually-used egg method discussed above, both of the most prominent examples of spy technology showcased in Season 2 so far were both invented long after the American Revolution was over:

1) John Hawkins’ letter-copying machine, or “polygraph,” Jeffersonpolygraph (mjaS2e3)which Tallmadge uses to forge a letter in the episode “False Flag.” Patented in 1803 – twenty years after the end of the Revolution – Hawkins’ machine greatly facilitated the arduous tasking of letter copying. Thomas Jefferson bought one for himself which visitors can still see today at Monticello. Jefferson was a huge fan of the innovative device, and he later said “the use of the polygraph has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legible.” Before the late 19th century, the term “polygraph” was used to described copying devices like this one. You can read more about Hawkins’ polygraph machine in the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.

2) Nathaniel Sackett’s bogus “lie detector” from the episode “Sealed Fate.” I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. For starters, the modern-day polygraph or “lie detector” wasn’t invented until 1923. Italian scientists (who always seem to be at the forefront of spy technology!) started experimenting with measuring physical responses to lying and truth-telling in the late 1870s – which is still 100 years ahead of TURN’s Revolutionary War storyline. TURN’s version of Nathaniel Sackett must have been a true visionary to be able to throw together a prototype of a machine that wasn’t invented until after World War I. Too bad they decided to kill him off thirty years too early in the show. (Or as another viewer said on Twitter: “If only Sackett had lived. The Continental Army may have had tanks by 1781.”

Even if the bizarre machine wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, Tallmadge’s use of the faux-polygraph as a form of psychological torture in order to extract information is just as historically inaccurate as the machine itself. We’ve covered the topic of torture extensively here in the blog.  If you haven’t read the original post, you should, but to make a long story short: Torture was very rarely used as a means to obtain intelligence in the Revolutionary War, in sharp contrast to what we’ve seen portrayed multiple times in TURN.

The infamous
The infamous “lie detector” scene was one of TURN’s featured promo pictures on their social media accounts.

Now here’s the frustrating thing: The American Revolution DID have plenty of awesome and innovative spycraft of its own – from creative concealment techniques to cyphers, masks and grilles, invisible ink, flamboyant messengers, and even “strange but true” experimental technology like the Turtle. It’s not as if the writers of TURN are starved for real-life examples of 18th century innovation.  (I’d like to point out that John Nagy’s book referenced above, which only deals with Revolutionary-era spycraft, is nearly 400 pages long.  There’s a LOT of historical material to work with.) It’s disappointing to see a show that was supposed to focus exclusively on Revolutionary War espionage morph into an anachronistic drama that has little regard for the time period in which it takes place — especially when the series started off on a much stronger footing.

Returning to our updated timeline: Season 2 seems to have left the 18th century behind in several other ways as well. In addition to using “futuristic” spy technology, we’ve recently seen real historical characters killed off decades too early and King George III turned into a drooling, raving lunatic long before his first recorded bouts of mental instability.  For all you viewers who were devastated at Nathaniel Sackett’s untimely death, you’ll be pleased to know that in reality, Sackett survived the Revolution intact, dying at age 68 in 1805.  Indeed, he served the contributed to the cause of American independence in a number of different capacities — in addition to his covert operations for Washington, he also was an active member of the Congressional Committee of Safety and later served as a sutler (merchant) for the Continental Army.

In reality, Mr. Sackett still had much to offer the young United States after his intelligence activities were over.

Like we’ve said many times before, here at the blog we understand the necessity of shuffling around some historical events in order to present a dramatic narrative that’s easier to follow. Plenty of events in TURN are off by only a year or two, which is reasonable by most people’s definitions. But as the episodes roll on, we’re finding we need to plot more and more events at the extremes of the historical timeline — including major events that play a central role in TURN’s unfolding storylines.  Regarding intelligence history — which is what the entire show is supposed to be about — the most prominently-featured spy techniques of TURN’s second season were never used in the Revolutionary War at all. The evidence strongly suggests that the writers and producers of TURN are increasing their disregard for the historical record as Season 2 progresses.  That’s not to say, of course, that there’s no hope left — indeed, my personal favorite episode of the entire series, chock-full of excellent historically-informed intrigue, occurred after the halfway point of the first season.  (Episode 6 of Season 1, “Mr. Culpepper,” for the record.)  So while the show is in the midst of a rather disappointing trend, there’s still plenty of time left in Season 2 for things to turn a corner. Here’s hoping the 18th century makes a comeback, and soon!


10 thoughts on “Spycraft in TURN: Nathaniel Sackett’s Anachronistic Gadgets (Or: What year is this again?)

    sleehauser said:
    May 18, 2015 at 8:59 am

    This season is looking more and more like an 18th century soap opera; the female characters serve only to titillate and give the show skin and spice. Even Anna has turned (well, it is called “Turn”!) into a sexual victim. Not happy with this at all.

    Mark said:
    May 18, 2015 at 10:29 am

    The following web pages may also be of interest to your readers.

    * Hollywood and History in AMC’s TURN (Patchogue-Medford Library. Celia M. Hastings Local History Room) http://history.pmlib.org/Hollywood-%26-History — The site is classified by subject, with links, some including full-text online books.
    and within the website, under the “General” heading are (among other things, including a link to TURN to a Historian)::

    * True or False in AMC’s TURN (Season 1: 2014) — A quiz, with answers, fleshed out in the parent Hollywood and History in AMC’s TURN web bage http://history.pmlib.org/sites/default/files/True%20or%20False%20in%20AMCsTurn_0.pdf#overlay-context=Hollywood-%2526-History

    * True or False in AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies (Season 2: 2015) — updated the Tuesday after each episode first airs; — A quiz, with answers, fleshed out in the parent Hollywood and History in AMC’s TURN web page http://history.pmlib.org/trueorfalse_season2

    A web page of special interest, courtesy of the public library that serves present-day Setauket is:

    * It Happened in Setauket: General Washington’s Culper Spy Ring (Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, Setauket, NY) http://spyring.emmaclark.org/ — It includes a clickable map (self-guided tour) of the Setauket vicinity, relating to the Culper Spy Ring; The Setauket Spy Ring Story, by local Historian, Bev Tyler; recommended Readings; and Recommended Websites.

    Questions, comments, corrections, observations for the first 3 sites can be directed to your humble servant, at: mrothenberg@pmlib.org

    Questions, comments, corrections, observations for the Emma S. Clark site, should be directed to that Library.
    Mark Rothenberg, Local History Liaison
    Patchogue-Medford Library, Celia M. Hastings Local History Room
    & Senior Reference Librarian, Suffolk Cooperative Library System

    Geoff Longo said:
    May 18, 2015 at 11:24 am

    You state in this blog post “Torture was never used as a means to obtain intelligence in the Revolutionary War”, and provide a link to your other post that states “Torture for the sake of gaining information certainly occurred during the war”.

      spycurious responded:
      May 18, 2015 at 11:32 am

      You are absolutely correct! I appreciate you pointing that out — and am leaving this comment here to show that I’m as vulnerable to the occasional gaffe as any other historian. I’ve since changed the language to reflect the much more accurate phrase “rarely used.” Thank you!

        Geoff Longo said:
        May 18, 2015 at 11:35 am

        Thanks for the response! I understood what you meant, but figured I would double check for clarification.

          spycurious responded:
          May 18, 2015 at 11:46 am

          You’re very welcome — in lieu of our ability to hire a professional copy editor for the blog (wink) I truly appreciate eagle-eyed readers like yourself pointing out the occasional mistake or oversight. Most of these posts are written late at night and queued for morning posts, so it happens! (For example: I also noticed this morning that some language was cut off in the Historical Timeline, too, for the 1803 polygraph entry — I’ll upload a corrected version when I have access to the original files later this evening.)

    kay said:
    May 18, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    I have to admit that what originally drew me into the show wasn’t the idea of it being historically accurate (I mean, it’s television–the truth is, they can’t keep a modern audience happy and interested with historically accurate…just look at shows like Reign, where the only actually historically accurate thing about the show is that there was a Mary, Queen of Scots…).
    And then season 2 started, and the whole crazy Anna/Simcoe/Hewlett/Abe nonsense aside, Sackett pulled out the lie detector and strapped the guy’s hand to it and put a quill in an attachment to it…because apparently it reads his pulse by magic…through his fingertips….with a metal clamp and no other equipment whatsoever….
    and he holds the paper of piece in the air, under he quill, because apparently he has super steady hands that won’t move and fudge up the results so Shanks appears guilty…I’m not sure we were meant to take that seriously so much as they were trying to mess with Shanks’ head, except that they told the science behind the idea….
    I think they would have been better about accuracy had the show only been a miniseries. To keep bringing audiences back, they have to keep making the story more fantastic and similar to modern day stories, or people will just get bored with it. Maybe that’s cynical, but my view of TV audiences is that they want entertainment at the expense of accuracy.

    RFWelch said:
    May 20, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    This may be a semantic quibble regarding “rarely” and “intelligence”, but Tallmadge certainly employed half-hanging, essentially 18th century waterboarding, to extract information from Tory “Cowboys” in Westchester County. How often he used it is impossible to say, but from his letters he seemed familiar with the technique and satisfied with the result. It was also used in the Southern campaigns.
    Re: TURN’s growing list of anachronistic devices, Alexander Rose, who wrote the book on which the series is supposedly based, and who is credited as a co-producer, certainly knows better. Of course, he now has a financial interest in the series, and may figure it’s better to have something on the tube about the Revolution than not, eve if the reality becomes hopelessly garbled in the process. Besides, it provides entertainment for those of us who enjoy fact-checking.

    […] Me pareció sumamente interesante entrever los métodos de espionaje de la época: aprender códigos y lenguajes secretos, tener identidades alternas y nunca revelar tu verdadero nombre, enviar mensajes en huevos hervidos y pintados, usar tinta invisible, gallinas, cosechas, utilizar mujeres, prostitutas y esclavas para recopilar información, colgar enaguas de cierto color para indicar que hay noticias nuevas o moros en la cost, enviar mensajes tejidos en sombreros. Luego leí que la guerra de independencia nunca utilizó huevos para espionaje sino que esta era una técnica del siglo XV, pero igual me pareció fascinante el recurso. Puedes leer más sobre los métodos de espionaje de Turn y otros siglos aquí https://spycurious.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/spycraft-in-turn-nathaniel-sacketts-anachronistic-… […]

    Rrat said:
    April 24, 2016 at 7:12 am

    Apparently everyone failed to notice that the ” lie detector” was in fact an adjustable back scratcher, as seen when sackett and talmadge are walking across camp after the interrogation.

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